by Emma Fenton, long-time reader in this space
As near-term human extinction is debated back and forth, argued for and against (with a degree of condemnation), the signs are already painfully obvious that this is the path we are heading down. Climate change, environmental damage and nuclear meltdowns are the signposts towards the demise of the human race and, as 2014 fades away, the issue of near-term human extinction demands serious attention.
The Sixth Mass Extinction
The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published an article on the sixth mass extinction some years ago, explaining that human pressure was having a major adverse effect on natural environments, with a third of all amphibians facing the threat of extinction. More are likely to follow as their habitats change or are destroyed. Salamanders and frogs are particularly at risk of fungal disease, exacerbated by global warming. Human population growth, habitat changes being enforced and global warming are having a devastating impact on nature, leading to the sixth mass extinction.
The oldest mass extinction is thought to have been the Ordovician-Silurian boundary with 60% of marine life being lost. Following this, the second significant event was in the late Devonian period, with 57% of marine genera disappearing (due to global cooling from bolide impacts). The third phase was the Permian-Triassic extinction, destroying 95% of species, on land and in sea. This was caused by severe climate change from flood volcanism. Then came the End Triassic extinction with the sea floor spreading due to lava floods, followed by the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, which led to the disappearance of nonavian dinosaurs.
The sixth mass extinction is underway. Global climate change, habitat destruction and its modification are major factors leading to this current phase. In other words, the human race is destroying its environment and itself.
The World Economic Forum established a panel to catalog the global risks that could lead to human extinction, such as natural disasters and influenza pandemics as well as terrorist threats. Jason Matheny at Harvard University published a paper entitled Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction in which he observes that many believe extinction is impossible but this simply means it is beyond our control, or that we do not view it as consequential, compared to social issues. This is because the problem is highly intimidating. The probability of extinction events needs investing in. Matheney argues that extinction could occur this century if we succumb to near-term extinction risks such as nuclear threat, asteroid impacts, volcano eruptions, gamma ray bursts, greenhouse gas emissions or a genetically engineered microbe to cause a global plague.
Near-term extinction is being seriously considered by Harvard scientists. Nuclear threat or meltdown could be a real probability. Kennedy estimated an outcome of a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis as being between one in three and even. Whilst NASA invests millions each year to research asteroids and comets, over a billion dollars is spent researching climate change and how to reduce emissions. Yet technologically advanced nations such as ours continue to damage the environment.
NASA conducted an experiment on solar radiation and the climate, trying to understand the variations in the sun’s power on our planet and found that their study was complicated by the fact that radiation from the sun is not constant. The lack of radiation is thought to have contributed to the European ice age between 1650 to 1700. Another factor to consider is that the sun is like any other star and will live and die in the same cycle, so that eventually the heat radiating from it will melt the ice caps and warm our planet until it becomes a hothouse, much like Venus. However it is not likely, given our current pathway to our own extinction that we will need to worry about this event, in a few billion years’ time.
Closer to home, the pharmaceuticals industry is having a negative environmental impact, through consumer disposal and waste each year. Human activity causes this pollution, with residues from agribusiness, manufacturing and community use finding their way as toxic waste into natural streams and drinking water. There is a risk to marine organisms too and this is becoming a major concern. Incineration is one way of combating this problem, but how do we educate the masses that are responsible for this poisonous waste? The health of humans and wildlife is at stake and the impact is significant, because much of this waste is contaminated. Worldwide, industry and governments alike are becoming concerned about the level of waste being disposed of within the environment and the effect it is having on the natural world around us, as well as on our own health.
Extinction is irreversible. We tend to consider it in terms of making sure we have clean water and food in order to survive, to be sustainable. When the population of a species develops beyond the environmental capacity to sustain it, there will be a population crash.
As Aldo Leopold once wrote: “wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization … no living man will see again the virgin pineries of the Lake states, or the flatwoods of the coastal plan …”
References and Further Reading:
McKee, J.K., Sciulli P.W, Fooce, C.D., Waite, T.A 2004 Forecasting Biodiversity Threats Due to Human Population Growth Biological Conservation 115(1): 161-164